MELBOURNE, Australia — Of all his considerable talents, Novak Djokovic’s ability to dismiss anything that seems to stand in his way might be the most valuable.
So forget the potential distraction of his father’s decision to stay away from Rod Laver Arena for Djokovic’s semi-final against unseeded American Tommy Paul at the Australian Open on Friday. Forget the heavily taped left hamstring that was a problem last week. Forget how physical the points were against Paul. Forget how Djokovic produced twice as many unforced errors, 24, as winners, 12, in the opening set. Forget the four-game lull that went to Paul. Forget the brief back and forth with the chair umpire.
Just remember this: Djokovic is not losing the semi-finals or the finals at Melbourne Park. And so, unsurprisingly, he overcame shaky early play and took over the match, beating Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 to close in on a 10th Australian Open championship and win. a 22nd Grand Slam title overall.
«I’m really grateful that I still have enough gas in my legs to be able to play at this level,» said Djokovic, a 35-year-old Serb. «Some of the long rallies, you could really feel them. We both had heavy legs in the first set. I was really lucky to keep my nerves towards the end of the first set. That was key. After that, I started swinging through the ball more.»
Djokovic extended his Australian Open winning streak to 27 matches, the longest in the Open era, which dates back to 1968.
There was a break in that winning streak a year ago when Djokovic was kicked out of Australia before the competition started because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. He has still not received the vaccines, but the strict border controls established by the country at the start of the pandemic have been relaxed.
On Sunday, the No. 4 seed Djokovic will face the No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who eliminated Karen Khachanov 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 to reach his first final in Melbourne. Park and second in a Slam.
Whoever wins the final will rise to number one in the ATP rankings. For Djokovic, it would mark a return to a place he has held for more weeks than anyone else; for Tsitsipas, it would mark a start there.
«I like that number. It’s all about you. It’s singular. It’s 1,» said Tsitsipas, who was 0-3 in the Australian Open semifinals heading into Friday. «These are the times I worked hard for.»
Djokovic is now a perfect 19-0 in the last two rounds in Melbourne, and his nine triumphs there is already a men’s record. If he can add one more to go along with his seven Wimbledon, three US Open and two French Open titles, Djokovic would tie Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam trophies won by a man.
«Winning Grand Slams and being world No. 1 are probably the two biggest heights you can climb as a professional tennis player,» said Djokovic, who is 10-2 against Tsitsipas, winning his last nine consecutive meetings. «So let’s see what happens.»
Tsitsipas’ other major final came at Roland Garros 2021, when he won the first two sets before losing that big lead and losing to Djokovic in five.
Which linked to a fun moment this week, when Djokovic said of Tsitsipas: «He never played a final, am I wrong?» Reminded by reporters of what happened at Roland Garros, Djokovic replied: «It’s true. Sorry, my fault.»
Asked about this exchange, Tsitsipas replied with a deadpan expression: «I don’t remember either.»
Until this week, Paul, ranked 35th, had never made it past the fourth round in 13 previous major tournament appearances.
The 25-year-old was born in New Jersey and raised in North Carolina, playing tennis at a club where the walls were adorned with posters of Andy Roddick – the last American to win a Grand Prix singles title Slam, at the 2003 US Open. This drought will continue for now because even though Djokovic wasn’t at his best in the first set, he was pretty good in the end, breaking in the last game and never giving up.
Djokovic’s blips came right off the bat.
The footwork was not up to his usual standard of reaching every ball. The shooting was poor. The service was average. He started gesturing and shouting at coach Goran Ivanisevic and the rest of his entourage.
In the first game, Djokovic missed an overhead, a weakness he never resolved. He threw a backhand into the net. He committed a double fault. Still, he overcame that to take a 5-1 lead.
Then came a quick change of direction. Djokovic broke while serving for the set there. And again at 5-3, when Paul hit a forehand down the line and Djokovic’s 29-point backhand landed. Paul held for 5 all over.
Could he make a game out of it?
Not for long. Djokovic, the greatest returner of his generation, or perhaps any generation, broke to close this set, when Paul sent a forehand wide. Serbian flags were displayed in the stands and the Rod Laver Arena was filled with chants of Djokovic’s two-syllable nickname, «No-le! No-le!»
The contest was never really a contest from then on.
«Playing the game and getting beat like that,» Paul said. «But I mean, it’s great to have been able to see the level I want to be at and know how hard I have to play if I want to beat people like that. I think it was a good experience.»
Tsitsipas struggled to strictly follow the rules governing the 25-second service clock and foot faults than he did beating Khachanov for nearly three full sets, then recovered after losing two match points at the end of the third.
He quickly regained his footing, taking a 3-0 lead in the fourth and closing out the victory around 40 minutes after his first opportunity.
Looking ahead to Sunday, Tsitsipas said: «I couldn’t be more ready for this moment.»